Candidate registration for Yemen’s first-ever multi-party elections opened on March 29 in a climate of lively polemics against the president’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). The GPC’s permanent committee had approved its electoral program on March 27. That same evening it appropriated an hour of television and radio time to present its proposals, shoving aside the law which stipulated that access to the official media was subject to the provisions of the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC) in the framework of equality between the parties. The head of the SEC’s information subcommittee immediately distributed a letter condemning this violation and threatened to resign. The GPC subsequently felt compelled to play by the rules.

The biggest campaign surprise of the week-long registration period was the huge number of independent candidates — 3,246 out of the 4,602 who registered — made possible by an electoral law that required candidates only to be literate, of good moral standing, religiously observant and not to have been convicted of any crime. A requirement to submit 300 voter signatures from the electoral district was dropped from the law.

The high number of independent candidates was the result of several factors. Local notables were testing their appeal. Some enlisted only in order to negotiate a rewarding withdrawal. The big parties — the GPC, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and the Islah — hoped that the distribution of votes among independents would benefit their candidates, who were supported by activists and enjoyed proximity to power. The two ruling parties also had to face candidates originally from their own ranks who ran as independents because the parties had nominated others or because as civil servants and members of the armed forces they could not have a formal party affiliation.

In putting together their slate, the GPC looked for persons well-rooted in their communities, with party affiliation taking second place. Many tribal leaders, of course, but also big merchants and high officials, ran in urban centers if they were not certain of their support at home. In the South, the GPC was able to enjoy the support of partisans of ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad, the former PDRY president ousted in 1986, by presenting a number of their candidates under its banner. Similarly, the YSP was able to count on its long-standing presence in the North through the old National Democratic Front. The YSP’s superior internal organization and activist tradition accounted for the presence among its candidates of a large number of its central committee members and government ministers.

The candidates of the Islah were divided between local notables, mainly sheikhs linked to Sheikh ‘Abdallah, and university-educated Islamists in the cities. Al-Haqq’s list of 67 candidates was a veritable who’s who of the sayyid families. The candidates of the League of the Sons of Yemen represented some of the most prestigious sheikhly families of Shabwa and Hadramawt. In addition to the three main parties, the League and the Baath were the only parties to put forward candidates in almost all the provinces.

Most of the parties formulated platforms which, if they had at least 10 candidates, they could present on radio and TV (twice for 20 minutes) and in the official daily, al-Thawra. The GPC’s program detailed, sector after sector, all types of measures that attested to apparently liberal and democratic convictions. The YSP adopted a social-democratic line and presented itself as the champion of democracy, modernization and order. The YSP program’s priorities were to establish order and security in the country by suppressing violence and moving swiftly against those responsible for corruption via an independent judiciary. In the social domain, the YSP proposed to improve medical care, develop public housing and improve access to education. The party catered to those who accused them of irreligiosity by calling for an Islamic university which, the Socialists claimed, would be a training center for clerics under the rubric of tolerance. Like the GPC, the YSP called for decentralization and the holding of local elections.

The Islah program focused on the idea that Islam should again have the central role that, according to the party, it had lost in Yemen. Its main slogan — “The Qur’an and the Sunna Supersede the Constitution and the Law” — was manifested in various propositions for reform. So as to reassure its critics, the Islah affirmed its commitment to a peaceful transfer of power and “consultative democracy,” but it refrained from mentioning a multiparty system in its program.

The other party programs presented variations on the same key themes: denunciation of corruption, a call for strengthening the judiciary and unification of the two armies and security systems, development of services in the rural areas, and an affirmation of support for the principle of peaceful transfer of power.

The Campaign

The ten-day campaign officially began on April 17. Party and candidate newspapers and broadsheets proliferated, and the walls in all the large towns and even in villages were covered with posters. The Islah had already before the start of the campaign pasted up its many slogans.

Almost all the GPC’s posters carried a picture of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. The independent candidates satisfied themselves mostly with posters carrying their picture and some key phrases from their program. These posters typically mentioned a person’s profession and featured the candidate’s favored attire: head covered or not, Western or traditional Yemeni dress. An independent candidate from Sanaa, a professor of political science at the university who belonged to a sayyid family, had taken care to wear a jambiyya, the curved dagger that signified his affiliation with the tribal world. A candidate from Marib showed his preferences by placing in the corner of his picture a small photograph of Saddam Hussein.

The law allowed for meetings in public spaces made available to the candidates, but it was only in large towns that huge gatherings took place. There were no debates between candidates except for some local initiatives.

In keeping with Yemeni custom, the period before the elections was marked by outpourings of generosity and hospitality on the part of the more affluent candidates. In the Jebel Yaf‘a, in Lahij province just north of Aden, a Socialist minister candidate organized a daily banquet followed by a qat-chewing session in the late afternoon (qat generously provided). The total cost of organizing the campaign and election emptied state coffers and seriously aggravated the country’s liquidity crisis. In addition to their personal generosity and the energy of their poster pasters, the candidates from the ruling parties were able to count on the advantages offered by their control of local government. In the larger towns in particular, neighborhood chiefs, with their links to the security forces, were able to mobilize voters around their respective parties.

Candidate withdrawals, authorized by law up to seven days before the elections, indicated prior agreements between the YSP and the GPC, and between the GPC and the Islah, to withdraw a candidate from one party in favor of another who was better placed. Most of the GPC-Islah agreements took place in the North, confirming suspicions that many GPC candidates were close to the Islah. YSP-GPC arrangements were more rare and more difficult to detect. In the end, 3,530 candidates remained — 2,263 independents, 279 from the GPC, 217 from the YSP, 196 from the Islah and 160 from the Baath.

The Elections

The day before the elections, the president and vice president addressed the voters, reminding them of the importance of the elections in closing off the period of transition and opening a new stage. The vice president took the occasion to renew offers to resume good relations with the Gulf countries. In a press conference a few days earlier, the GPC’s ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and the YSP’s ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd had confirmed, a smile fleeting across their lips, that they intended to continue their collaboration after the elections, the results of which they undertook in advance to accept. The quiet confidence they exuded, even more than the withdrawal agreements, suggested the real stake of the elections: to measure the respective popularity of the three main parties that would comprise a coalition. The election results would determine the quotas of ministers of the parties in government, but there was hardly a question of a real transfer of power.

On the morning of April 27, all polling stations opened, a box for every 500 registered voters. Upon presenting their proof of registration, the voters received a sheet on which, in a booth if there was one, they wrote the name of the candidate of their choice. The voter then slid the sheet into the box and dipped his or her finger into ink, intended to prevent a return visit to the polls.

At first light, hundreds of voters began pushing their way into the centers. Many had to wait long hours. The turnout rate, not officially announced, was definitely more than 80 percent. A formidable military presence assured order throughout the day. In the polling stations, though, there were moments of disorder. In one place, women voters fed up with waiting forced themselves inside and cast a collective vote, some filling out a whole series of sheets for their illiterate friends in the presence of passive officials. Elsewhere soldiers at the booths filled out voting sheets for others that no one bothered to check. Multiple voting was made possible by the facility with which the ink could be washed off; more than once, a voter prepared to cast his vote only to discover that his registration number corresponded to that of someone who had already voted. Finally, the deployment of troops made it possible to modify the composition of the electorate of certain districts significantly and at the last moment. [1]

Not even waiting for the vote count, the US embassy issued a communique on the night of April 27 congratulating “the people and government of Yemen for the success of their first multi-party elections” and declaring that “the United States looks forward to working with the government to be formed as a result of these elections.” The official media never tired of quoting this and the commentaries of the Western media and of international observers and diplomats, even when the most serious incidents of fraud were taking place in the days of ballot counting. When the official results were announced on May 1, the GPC had won majorities in all the governorates in the North and three seats in the South. In the South, the YSP won an overwhelming victory, which could be interpreted as evidence of its popularity after two decades of Socialist power, but also as an indicator of an effective apparatus of control. In the southern province of Abyan, birthplace of ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad, the YSP took 7 out of the 8 seats, even though YSP relations with the former president have only recently begun to improve. The YSP did not elect any representatives in Sanaa, but did well in al-Baydha and Ta‘izz provinces, even if the competition with the Nasserists in Ta‘izz allowed seats there to be picked up by the Islah and GPC. The two seats won by the YSP in the electoral district of the Sufyan tribe, in the heart of the Zaydi tribal area, and among the Bedouin of Marib, confirm the existence of a tribal challenge to the GPC that the YSP was able to exploit. [2] But the commitment of these elected representatives to the entire YSP platform remains uncertain. Contrary to the GPC, the YSP can pride itself on a largely ideological vote. How else to explain the performance in Sanaa and elsewhere in the North of little-known candidates originally from the South who nevertheless came away with encouraging results?

Although the Islah carried not a single seat in the South, it did well in several provinces there. It was only thanks to the withdrawal of the Socialist candidate in favor of the ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad faction of the GPC that the two parties were able to block the victory of the Islah’s candidate in Mukalla, the Hadramawt capital. This province has been a priority area for Islah proselytizing, with its proximity to Saudi Arabia and strong religious tradition.

Sheikh ‘Abdallah, who was a candidate in the province of Khamir, the Hashid capital north of Sanaa, triumphed without difficulty; out of deference, the GPC and YSP ran no candidates against him. Al-Haqq was the only party to compete with him. One of his sons won under less glorious circumstances in Hajja province, as his victory was offset by several deaths and the destruction, by rocket launcher, of the local Socialist headquarters.

The election results were less auspicious for the smaller parties: the Baath saved face with seven seats, one of which was taken by the son of its leader, the permanent deputy prime minister in charge of tribal affairs, Sheikh Mujahid Abu Shuwarib, who is also Islah leader Sheikh ‘Abdallah’s brother-in-law. Al-Haqq naturally carried its two seats in Sa‘da province, the historical Zaydi stronghold. The Nasserists, who had had great hopes, could only join in the concert of complaints against fraud and ruling party manipulations. The results of other parties were derisory, despite some very active campaigns.

The new Yemeni Chamber of Deputies remains in the hands of the large parties. The electoral struggle hardly helped the candidates representing new modernizing trends in Yemeni society. The notables prevailed, be they the great sheikhly families (al-Ahmar, Abu Shuwarib, Abu Ra’s, al-Shayif, al-Ruwayshan), the big entrepreneurs (Hayil Sa‘id and Thabit) or the new aristocracy in the South, the members of the YSP central committee. With only two women elected, the diversity of the Yemeni population is less well represented in the new chamber than in the old, which has lost several of its most voluble critics (al-Fusayyil and al-Sam‘i, for example).

The parties filed 113 challenges with the constitutional division of the Supreme Court. The three big parties decided, after a number of mutual accusations, to retract in a collective letter the complaints they had submitted against one another’s respective candidates, without even consulting their own membership. This locked in place the coalition in the making. Of the 20 cases remaining, the court ratified the initial results.

The various international observer groups gave their imprimatur to the results, which contrasted with the accusations leveled by the National Committee for Free Elections, a Yemeni NGO, and the smaller parties of the National Conference, which charged fraud on the part of the three big parties.

Prudent Democratization

The fact that elections were held constitutes in itself a victory for a process of democratization that started after unification. Whatever one might say about the manner in which the elections took place, everyone sees this as a first step. The coalition government constitutes the best solution to maintaining political stability in the country, despite the reticence of some of the Socialists, like Jarallah ‘Umar, who had hoped that his party could regain its virginity as a member of the opposition.

The coalition, though, has left little by way of an opposition. The three big parties have made it practically impossible for opponents to enter the Chamber of Deputies (the Baath, with its seven seats, is very close to the GPC). Now that the opposition parties have been told to take a hike in the desert, they would be wise to hearken to the remark of ‘Umar al-Jawi, who lost his election bid in Aden, to “be strong in the streets, because we are not represented in Parliament.” (Al-Jawi, head of the Yemeni Union Rally and one of the most vocal critics of the ruling parties, was reputedly on President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s list of people to defeat in the elections. The Socialist candidate won in his district.)

Local elections in the provinces may offer hope for the opposition. In the short term, the political agenda appears to be dominated by constitutional reform, which is supported for different reasons by all three coalition partners. The Islah wants to make the shari’a the sole source of legislation. The YSP and GPC want to alter the regime’s institutional architecture. Three years of experience have persuaded them to renounce the country’s collegial form of leadership — a Presidential Council appointed by the Chamber of Deputies. Now a vice president would be elected from a list approved by the National Assembly (YSP version) or appointed by the president (GPC version). The Assembly would consist of the current Chamber of Deputies augmented by the new Consultative Council, some of whose members would be appointed. Sheikh ‘Abdallah has already made clear his hostility to a second chamber, which might erode the prestige of the chamber over which he is currently speaker. (Many cited his selection to explain the adjustment of the Yemeni riyal vis-a-vis the dollar in May, as this would facilitate reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and the resumption of Gulf aid.) The opposition, for its part, condemned a project that would further strengthen the executive branch, while calling for a redistribution of power to the judiciary and legislative branches.

It is still too early to predict what Yemen will look like once these reforms have been adopted. It seems likely that the country will remain fixed on a path of “prudent democratization” that will not threaten the elites in power.

Translated from the French by Joost Hiltermann


[1] This was because people could register in one of a number of places — where they lived, where they worked, their home town or village, or, for members of the armed forces, where they were stationed.
[2] The great majority of Yemenis are Zaydi (Shi‘i) or Shafi‘i (Sunni) Muslims. Zaydism, which dates from the early Muslim period, has little in common with Iranian or Iraqi Shi‘ism, and promotes “a rather sober religious style” (Paul Dresch, Tribes, Governments and History in Yemen). Shafi‘i practice, by contrast, is more tolerant of such things as the veneration of saints and holy places. There are very few historical instances of one community trying to suppress the practices of the other. The main historical difference concerned the temporal role of the (Zaydi) Imamate, and Zaydi domination of political and military institutions up to the revolution of 1962. Roughly speaking, the Zaydi population corresponds to the inhabitants of the northern, more mountainous region, while Shafi‘is mainly inhabit the southern highlands and coastal areas, and came to play the leading role as merchants and traders. The difference between the two communities is thus “more of a socioeconomic and political cleavage than a religious one” (Manfred Wenner, The Yemen Arab Republic). Yemenis today differ over the continuing significance of Zaydi-Shafi‘i affiliations.

How to cite this article:

Renaud Detalle "The Yemeni Elections Up Close," Middle East Report 185 (November/December 1993).

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